BLADE Magazine

Unconditionally Traditional: The Beauty Of Custom Pocketknives

Custom Pocketknives Always Seem To Make Us Feel Nostalgic. These Models From Talented Custom Makers Are All Gems.

There’s something about classic custom pocketknives that tugs at the heartstrings. Once you get bitten by the bug it’s an itch you can never quite finish scratching. It becomes indelibly etched in the DNA. 

Fortunately, custom knifemakers never tire of building them and every year provide new offerings and fresh looks. Meet four of those makers, each highly skilled at the craft who build exquisite knives with personalities all their own.

With its beefy bolster and no-nonsense stout handle, the barlow slip-joint pocketknife is designed for hard use. Adam Rogers gave his two-blade iteration all the right stuff for a million-dollar look.

“I see the barlow as the perfect example of a gentleman’s folder, very universal and great as an everyday carry,” the Aussie maker observes. His upscale workhorse is 3.35 inches closed with a 2.2-inch spear-point main blade and a 1.57-inch secondary pen pattern. He chose CPM 154 stainless steel to do the cutting chores and the fluted bolsters are 416 stainless. “The long pull works well with the shape of the spear blade, whilst giving easy access to open,” Adam notes. 

The upscale liners are jeweled and the backsprings are CPM 154.

Why did he choose giraffe bone for the scales? “Giraffe bone is a great product to work with, easy to use with a large variety of colors available,” Adam assesses. “Paired with the fluted 416 stainless steel bolsters it gives the folder a clean, sophisticated look.” Other traditional pocketknife patterns Adam offers include the sowbelly, saddlehorn trapper—both single and twin blades—small and medium trappers, wharncliffe trapper, Lanny’s Clip and the muskrat.

Trapper By Bubba Crouch

Bubba Crouch goes the unusual materials route for his dress slip-joint trapper, including a 4-inch blade forged from old Schrade trapper blades and handle wood from the pole that held up the original telephone lines from the house to the office of famed Texas cattle baron Charles Goodnight. (SharpByCoop image)

You might say custom knifemaker Bubba Crouch doesn’t walk the straight and narrow. Instead, he infuses interesting stories and twists in his slip-joint pocketknives that make them truly remarkable. Take, for instance, his dress trapper.

“A customer gave me the wood for the handle he bought at a fundraiser auction from the estate of Mr. Charles Goodnight,” Bubba says. “The historical wood was holding up the original telephone lines from Goodnight’s house to his office.” Just so you know, Goodnight was a living legend among cattle barons in the latter half of the 1800s.

If that isn’t enough to set Crouch’s trapper apart, the 4-inch clip-point blade with the deep belly is forged by Jason Fry from old Schrade trapper blades. The integral bolsters are made to resemble the beaten copper pots Bubba’s mom acquired in New Mexico when Bubba was a child. “I’m always hunting for something unique with a historical past,” he states. “It’s really challenging trying to find these items.”

Like Tom Ploppert (read on for more on him) and many other slip-joint makers, Bubba gets no small part of his inspiration from BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Tony Bose. 

“I build mostly trappers in three sizes but I have also built Saddlehorn trappers from the Tony Bose design,” he says. “I’ve built a few lockbacks too but my market is mainly the trapper.”

The Lincoln Folder

Eugene Shadley’s Lincoln Folder is a reproduction of the six-blade congress pocketknife that was on President Abraham Lincoln’s person when he was assassinated. The blades are CPM 154 stainless steel and the handle is smooth white bone. Maker’s price for a similar knife: $5,000.

Custom knifemaker Eugene Shadley is royalty among slip joint aficionados, so it’s only fitting we feature his reproduction of a pocketknife owned by one of our most famous presidents.

“The Lincoln Folder is my rendition of the congress pocketknife Abraham Lincoln had in his pocket the night he was assassinated,” Shadley notes. “A customer asked me to make a copy.”

The Lincoln Folder is only 3.5 inches closed yet features six blades inside its compact frame. The liners and bolsters are 416 stainless steel with smooth white bone scales topped with a gently curved round bar shield. The blades include a large spear, large sheepsfoot, a cutoff pen, two pen blades, and a manicure blade with a nail cleaner and a file on either side.

Just how tough is it to make multi-blades, especially one with six blades? “Anytime you make a knife where blades pass each other, everything really does need to be in its place,” the award-winning maker and a past president of The Knifemakers’ Guild explains. “A lot of factory knives had a little longer and thinner blades that passed each other. Those knives tended to be more utilitarian and rubbing was the norm. We custom makers are expected to make sure blades do not rub each other.”

Wilbert Saddlehorn Trapper

The Wilbert Saddlehorn Trapper by Tom Ploppert is a lockback with a rich factory history. BLADE Magazine Cutlery Hall-Of-Fame® member Tony Bose introduced Tom to the knife many years ago. Tom’s price for a similar reproduction: $2,100. (Mitchell D. Cohen photography)

Tom Ploppert’s Wilbert Saddlehorn Trapper is a reproduction of a lockback with a rich factory history. 

“Wilbert Cutlery Co. was located in Chicago and was a retail brand sold by Sears Roebuck & Co. through a contract with Napanoch Knife Co. and Empire Knife Co.,” he explains. “They were made from approximately 1908 to 1921. Tony Bose introduced me to this knife and its history many years ago and shared the pattern with me as well.”

The scales are a gnarly premium stag and the integral bolsters are 416 stainless steel. Closed length: 4.5 inches. The Wilbert’s 3.75-inch clip-point blade of CPM 154 stainless steel features a classic nail nick. “There is a lot of blade to fit into a narrow handle and bolster area,” Tom states. “It requires a lot of adjustments along the building process.”

Another notable feature is the blade’s well-defined grind. “I hollow grind all my blades with a 20-inch Burr King grinder using a 1-inch-wide wheel,” Tom notes. “I get crisp grind lines using fresh new belts. Bill Ruple [page 12] taught me early on that nothing cuts like a fresh new belt—along with years of practice.”

Bruce Barnett’s Peanut Pocketknife

Australian ABS journeyman smith Bruce Barnett likes serpentine pocketknife patterns. His peanut with its curvy handle is an example. (Rod Hoare knife image)

Australian knifemaker Bruce Barnett found the peanut pocketknife pattern to his liking and fashioned a striking example of it. 

“I really like the subtle and serpentine-shaped knives, and took it upon myself to stretch it to 3.5 inches and reshape the pivot end,” he related. “Shaping up a nice, long wharncliffe for the second blade was challenging in itself, and I think this one looks pretty cool.”

Barnett’s peanut features a blade of his damascus forged from 1080 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels in a ladder pattern, mammoth ivory scales, and a 410 stainless frame and bolster. He wanted to make a working knife true to the classic peanut style and succeeded, commenting, “I realize it was generally a small two-blade that fit in your money pocket, but so does this one in today’s working man’s jeans.”

This particular knife is available for $1,350 from Bruce, and a similar piece would run roughly the same price. He uses his forged damascus in about half the knives he produces, both in traditional work and for specific custom orders. His 410 or 416 stainless frame and 154CM stainless spring materials are common, and he appreciates the understated surprises sometimes present in mammoth ivory. 

“I find these materials easy to use and can trust them not to fail,” he commented, “and with mammoth ivory, it’s very stable and durable, and you never know what colors are hiding under the bark.”

After 12 years as a part-time knifemaker and working as a mining maintenance manager, Bruce began making knives full-time in 2017. His farming and mining background had always involved knives, but the catalyst for a move into making his own came from another passion.

“I was introduced to custom-made knives by Max Harvey, who donated a large bowie for me to raffle to help fund my drag racing habit running a nitro-methane-powered Harley-Davidson, which I went on to win the Australian championship on,” he remembered. “After a pretty serious accident, I gave up racing and was instantly looking for something else to do. I had never forgotten that knife. I decided I would try and make one—and here we are.”

Harvey Dean’s Texas Tornado

ABS master smith Harvey Deanmarries 24k-gold engraving and escutcheons, antique shell and Dellana Dots on the blade of Texas Tornado pattern damascus to cap off his ornate Coke bottle pattern. (SharpByCoop knife image)

The famed Case Coke bottle pocketknife took on a new twist when Harvey Dean paired the well-known handle shape with a sleek dagger blade in his Texas Tornado damascus of 1075 carbon and 15N20 nickel-alloy steels. 

This beauty sports a blade of 4-3/8 inches, closed length of 5.5 inches, and lustrous scales of antique shell. Distinctive Dellana Dots accent the blade to assist in opening, while Harvey did his own engraving in 24k-gold overlay with 24k-gold escutcheons. The bolster and guard on each side are integral 416 stainless steel pinned together.

The dagger blade and Coke bottle handle are traditional, but Harvey’s variation marries them in a stunning display that literally makes the “old” something new and exciting in this custom pocketknife. 

“I just thought it looked good,” Harvey commented. “I kind of modified the Coke bottle shape from the Case pattern as their bolsters are straight. Dellana is the first person I know of that instead of using a nail nick or thumb stud, put gold-raised pins in the blade so you could open it with them. I liked that when she started with it.”

Harvey made his distinctive Coke bottle dagger for the Art Knife Invitational (AKI) and said it sold for $9,600. So, with the pricing benchmarked, another similar knife would sell for around the same. In addition, however, the owner receives not only the knife made by one of the premier makers in the world today, but also a fine example of Harvey’s engraving skills.

“I don’t remember how many years ago I started engraving,” Dean mused, “but it’s been close to 10 since I went to the GRS Engraving School []. This engraving is overlaid gold instead of inlaid, and the background is also engraved. I called [engraver and AKI coordinator] Barry Lee Hands when I was doing it and told him the pucker factor was very high. This is the first knife I’ve ever done with that much stuff on it, and one of the most ornate knives I’ve ever done. If you look closely, the leaves are actually shaded with round cuts instead of regular cuts like most shading is done to catch the light and get a lot of glittering in the look.”

Tobin Hill’s Custom Cheetah

Tobin Hill said the tough part about reproducing the old Case folding-guard Cheetah pattern is getting the guard to lock tight in the open and closed positions with no rattle or play. (SharpByCoop knife image)

Another tribute to the Case brand comes in the form of Tobin Hill’s version of the venerated Cheetah folder. His take on the Cheetah features the folding guard that made the pattern famous. Both the 3.5-inch blade and guard are CPM 154 stainless steel, while the handle is a superb amber red stag. Closed length: 4.3 inches. The spring and lock guard are also CPM 154, while the liners are 410 stainless and the bolsters are 416 stainless. 

Tobin said this particular Cheetah sold at BLADE Show 2022 for $1,100, while its twin, handled in mammoth ivory, sold at $1,200. Pricing would be similar for another such piece.

“I chose to build the swing-guard Cheetah because of the uniqueness of the mechanism,” Tobin said. “I haven’t seen many other custom makers try it and I like the challenge. The tough part is getting the guards to lock up tight in the open and closed positions with no rattle or play. I’ve seen several production models over the years that did rattle.

“Case has produced several versions of the swing guard. The pattern has always been called the 11½ series. They started making them between 1896-1915. I’ve seen models stamped ‘Case Brothers,’ ‘Case Tested,’ and ‘Case XX.’ The Cheetah pattern I copied was first made in 1973. They also produced the Cheetah Cub, a three-quarter version. The blades were mainly flat ground but I’ve also seen dagger grinds, some with crescent nail nicks and some with long pulls. I hollow ground my knife and thought it would be cool to put both a crescent and long pull in.”

Tobin has made knives for about seven years now and completed his first work on April 16, 2016. While he is still a part-time knifemaker, he hopes to devote more hours to it after possibly retiring soon from his own insurance agency following 42 years in that industry. Prior to making knives, his hobby was no less challenging—restoring violins to their original condition.

Tyler Turner’s Custom Pocketknife

“I was wanting to make a slip joint that was not made by custom makers often and that had some sex appeal to it,” Tyler Turner smiled. “And the graceful curves of the toothpick fit that bill perfectly.” (SharpByCoop knife image)

When Tyler Turner took on a toothpick project, he was looking for a certain flair that he knew was otherwise hidden. 

“I was wanting to make a slip joint that was not made by custom makers often and that had some sex appeal to it,” he smiled. “And the graceful curves of the toothpick fit that bill perfectly.”

His long, smooth toothpick features a 3.25-inch blade of damascus forged by Damasteel in the Fafnir pattern, with integral bolstered liners in 416 stainless steel, a CPM 154 spring, top-grade mother-of-pearl scales, and 24k-gold engraving and inlay by Jody Muller. Tyler said the handsome toothpick sold for $2,200, and another in a similar composition would command about the same price.

“The materials were chosen to accentuate one another,” he explained. “The most challenging aspect to the build was grinding the blade. My design led to a very acute angle at the tip. I always grind post-heat treatment, so a lot of care went into grinding it slow and cool so the tip did not turn color and ruin the temper.”

Tyler indicated the toothpick pattern, custom versions of which are less often seen than other patterns nowadays, originated in the early 1900s. It became popular with its easy carry and useful clip blade. And the blend of an older, traditional pattern fit in nicely with the maker’s perspective on his art.

“I would say I have a very eclectic style,” he remarked. “I invite the challenges of making a wide variety of knives so that it always pushes me to be better. Plus, it keeps people guessing!”

A resident of Hopkins, Missouri, Tyler is a part-time custom knifemaker and fourth-generation farmer. He grows amylose corn and soybeans with his father and has been making knives for about nine years now, primarily in the summer and winter. For Tyler, the family farming tradition goes hand in hand with another vocation, a foray into traditional knife patterns with the imprint of his own style.

Editor’s Note: Mike Haskew contributed to this piece.

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